The governor’s office recently convened a focus group and had a facilitator ask an open-ended question about education. The group, mostly parents and grandparents, chattered on about neighborhood schools and teachers.

“What else?” the facilitator asked. The group talked about universities and community colleges.

“Anything else?” the facilitator pressed. No answer. In the wings, the governor’s staff shifted in their chairs. “Anything?”

Not one person mentioned early-childhood education. And it is there, in that silence, that omission, that Gov. John Kitzhaber sees the greatest opportunity for reform. Everything he and other education leaders hope to accomplish — attacking the persistently high dropout rate, dramatically increasing college participation — begins with getting every Oregon child ready to learn before he or she arrives at kindergarten.

If you take the time to understand anything about school reform, including the confusing restructuring that starts with a new Oregon Education Investment Board, then think about “education” beginning much sooner, much younger, than you have in the past.

No, this isn’t entirely new — increasing participation in Head Start, for example, has long been a political priority.

But what is new is setting high expectations and demanding that the scattershot mix of early-childhood programs actually prepare children to learn. As the governor points out, this is not day care, but preschool. If the Legislature agrees, Oregon soon will require that all children entering kindergarten be assessed for their readiness. If early-childhood programs are not adequately preparing children, they will lose their public funding.

That’s new. If early-childhood providers feel threatened by that, too bad. There is a concern that parents, too, will find this change off-putting. They shouldn’t. Oregon is not setting out to “test” 5-year-olds on their skills. An assessment of their readiness to learn is something different. And it’s already widely done; Portland Public Schools, for example, assesses the readiness of its kindergartners.

In a recent interview, Kitzhaber kept using the term “diagnosis” to talk about his education reform plans, which extend throughout Oregon’s education system. It’s a useful way of looking at education reform, where old problems, old ills, are too often left to fester. Everybody understands that a child who isn’t ready to learn at kindergarten is far more likely to fall quickly behind, failing to read in first grade, unable to read at grade level at the end of third grade, more likely to drop out in 10th grade.

Kitzhaber’s early childhood reforms are aimed at getting everybody ready by the starting line. If Oregon can do that, and, yes, the challenges are enormous, imagine the money it would save that is now spent on remedial education, and the difference it would make to the state’s school system, its economy and the lives of countless people.

If the governor and the many Oregonians who work in early childhood education are successful, one day you’ll see it in higher graduation rates and greater college participation. You’ll see it in a generation of young Oregon adults who, unlike today’s, are better educated than their parents. And you’ll see it in a future roomful of Oregonians who, when asked about education, quickly answer that it all starts in preschool.

BE YOUR CHILD’S FIRST MATH TEACHER! – Teach Your Child to Count to 10 – ChildUp Early Learning Game Cards

Teach Your Child to Count to 10 with “iCount-to-10″ – Early Learning Game for iPad

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